British heartthrob Hugh Dancy, with his dashing good looks, tousled chestnut-colored locks and heart-melting smile, has often been pegged as the next actor to break through to major stardom on this side of the pond. More than just a pretty face, Dancy, who will debut on Broadway this month in R.C. Sherriff’s landmark World War I drama Journey's End, boasts proven acting chops and an impressive resume of adventurous roles spanning film, television and theatre.
He has teamed with a flock of fellow up-and-comers in Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down," played charming hero on horseback to Anne Hathaway in "Ella Enchanted" and Keira Knightley in "King Arthur," and held his own against the formidable Helen Mirren as a knight in tarnished armor — the handsome but hubristic Earl of Essex, a role that earned him an Emmy nomination — in the acclaimed HBO miniseries "Elizabeth I."
With five movies scheduled for release in the coming year — including "Beyond the Gates," a drama about the Rwandan genocide, opening next month — Dancy's star is undoubtedly on the rise. But unlike other wannabes angling for the A-list status achieved by fellow countrymen Jude Law and Orlando Bloom, the 31-year-old Dancy seems to have little interest in being anointed by the Hollywood hype machine as the newest "It" Brit.
"Increasingly, you realize the meaninglessness of all that talk," says Dancy, while seated in the lobby–lounge of the trés chic Mercer Hotel in SoHo during a mid-December afternoon. "Not to be sickeningly humble, but I am quite happy just to be working…and in these last couple of years, I've really enjoyed myself. I feel really spoiled by the variety of what I've been able to do and the people I've gotten to work with." Dancy seems genuinely unseduced by the trappings of fame and happy just to enjoy the ride. Like any self-respecting British thesp, he relishes working onstage, even if Journey's End will mark his first major theatre role since he appeared, oddly enough, in another World War I drama, the Sam Mendes–directed To the Green Fields Beyond at the Donmar Warehouse in 2000.
Yet Journey's End, about a group of British soldiers ensconced in trenches along the front lines of World War I, will present an entirely new challenge for the Staffordshire native. Nearly forgotten as a creaky old British warhorse, the play was infused with new life by director David Grindley for an acclaimed 75th anniversary London production that was drained of any sentimentality and staged with a startling immediacy. Dancy says that the role of the distraught, whiskey-sodden young officer, Captain Stanhope, is unlike any character he's ever tackled before.
"There's so much turmoil going on under the surface with Stanhope — an awful lot of things that he's pretending to himself, that he's not allowing himself to engage in because it would prevent him from doing his job and successfully looking after the men he's responsible for," says Dancy. "He's using a bottle of whiskey a day to suppress the fact that he's actually terrified of his situation, and he knows that he can't allow those emotions to surface."
Grindley, who is helming the current Broadway bow, praises Dancy for his ability to deliver a sustained, intensely rendered performance — a quality the director says is difficult to find in young actors. "You have to be aware that [Stanhope] is this volcano about to erupt, but you don’t quite see it, except for these brief flashes where there's this outburst and then he restrains himself," observes Grindley. "I saw Hugh in 'Elizabeth I,' and I thought he had a real fire in his belly and a wildness in the eyes. Yet at the same time, he was absolutely in charge of his performance while also drawing you into his [character's] pain."
Although Dancy stresses that he can't identify with his character's tragic predicament, he does understand some of his feelings. "As the leader of this group of men, you can make a case for him having to put on a good face at all times. This is probably a bit facile, but being an actor, I do know about that. That’s what interviews are like," he says, with a smile. "You know, getting below the surface is not necessarily a desirable thing [for an actor] when it comes to being interviewed."
Despite a reluctance to reveal too much of himself, Dancy is sure to set tongues wagging in the coming year thanks to a handful of high-profile film roles. In "Beyond the Gates," he plays a naïve schoolteacher who embodies the West's lack of response to the Rwandan genocide. Later this year, he will play a spoiled rich kid who's "an utter mess" in "Evening," which features a starry cast including Vanessa Redgrave, Claire Danes and Meryl Streep. Also on the docket is a supporting part in "Savage Grace," opposite Julianne Moore, about the shocking 1972 London murder of American socialite Barbara Baekeland; as well as "The Jane Austen Book Club," an ensemble drama written and directed by Robin Swicord.
"You realize that something can become really popular, and you don’t have any method of knowing what that’s going to be. I just want to continue to work in theatre as well as film. In a dream scenario that's the kind of career I would have," he says, pausing. "And I suppose at the moment that I do [have that]. So I'm very happy, and long may it continue."